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Danilo Dolci
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Social activist Danilo Dolci.Hailed as the "Sicilian Gandhi," Danilo Dolci was born at Sesana, near Trieste, in 1924, son of a Sicilian father and a Slovenian mother. By the time of his death, in 1997, he had seen the face of Sicily change considerably, and could justly recognize his own contributions to the process. Into the 1970s, he was the single most important force for improvement in horrendous social conditions rooted in centuries of exploitation by ruthless landlords, dishonest government officials, corrupt police and, worst of all, the omnipresent black hand of the Mafia. These were the elements that had shaped the very fabric of Sicilian society --a world then more "closed" than it is today. It has become stylish --almost trendy-- for politicians and journalists to speak out against the Mafia, with movies, fashion, books and even "Mafia tours" spawned by a newly-profitable "Mafia industry," but in the 1950s and 1960s that was far from the case. On one occasion, for example, the offices of a newspaper were bombed in retaliation for publishing the word "Mafia." On another, a member of Palermo's city council (a nobleman associated with a leftist party) was beaten by thugs for having sought, by voting against changes to the local building code, to impede the destruction of some local architectural landmarks so that Mafioso friends of several infamous politicians (mayors and senators) could erect ugly structures in their stead in the Via Libertà district. This was the public "official" side of organized crime, but widespread poverty and the countless corpses that littered the countryside were the part that Dolci fought daily. In those days, the leadership of the Catholic Church in Sicily sometimes seemed to ignore the existence of the Mafia, and clerics rarely spoke out against organized crime or against other social ills. As a social activist, Dolci's story begins in post-war Sicily, but it is worth recounting the events that brought him here.

Raised in Fascist Italy, Danilo Dolci studied architecture and engineering and was a promising student. He was not very "political" in the sense of being associated with a particular political party, but as a young man was arrested by northern Italy's Fascists (of Mussolini's Republic of Salò) for tearing down Fascist propaganda posters. It was 1943, and he refused to enlist in the doomed army of the Republic of Salò. This was one of the first clear indictions that Dolci detested violence in any form. Though never a full-time partisan, he certainly hated Fascism. A pacifist? Perhaps.

Despite widespread public impressions, he was neither a Communist nor overtly anti-clerical. He was an activist, pure and simple. Following the war, he initially supported some charities sponsored by the Catholic Church. He had been to Sicily briefly in the early 1940s, when his father worked for the railroad here. But it was during a subsequent visit to Sicily's Greek archeological sites that he became acutely aware of what can only be described as squalid rural poverty. This meant towns without electricity, running water or sewers, peopled by impoverished citizens living --or barely surviving-- on the edge of starvation: largely illiterate and unemployed, suspicious of the state and ignored by their Church. The young Dolci sought to address problems that few others were willing even to recognize, much less confront. In the 1950s, despite continuing mass emigration from northern Italy as well as Sicily, it took courage to write about the nation's failure to provide opportunities for its least fortunate citizens, or a self-governing region's abuse of public funds literally stolen by politicians associated directly with the Mafia. Yet, Dolci did so with eloquence, despite constant threats from corrupt law-enforcement authorities (he was incarcerated for crimes such as "libel" of public officials) and open contempt from the Catholic Church (longtime Palermo archbishop Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini publicly denounced Dolci and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusi, author of The Leopard, for "defaming" all Sicilians) for drawing attention to terrible situations most Sicilians knew to exist but were reluctant to openly acknowledge.

Dolci's social center attracted attention on a global scale, prompting many to compare him to Martin Luther King. Like Doctor King, Dolci was a charismatic character whose movement appealed to socially-conscious young people around the world, some of whom came to Sicily to work with him. Yet, Dolci's blunt, pragmatic message was rarely a convenient or flattering one. That this made many Sicilians, and their diaspora abroad, slightly uncomfortable, never hindered his efforts, unique for their time. As a humanitarian, he created public works programs, investigated public corruption and generally assisted the poorest people of northwestern Sicily, attempting to improve their living conditions while using Partinico and Trappeto as his main bases. The Jato Dam was one such project. As a humanist, he published extensively and brought popular attention to the humblest citizens of a very slowly evolving society, earning praise around the world. Danilo Dolci was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, the funds from which were used to establish a string of social centers to address the needs of poor families. Among those who publicly voiced support for his efforts were Carlo Levi, Erich Fromm, Bertrand Russell, Jean Piaget, Aldous Huxley, Jean-Paul Sartre and Ernst Bloch. In Sicily, Leonardo Sciascia advocated many of the ideas espoused by Dolci. Dolci was twice married and had several children. Sicilian Lives remains his best known book, while one of the best biographical works about him is American author Gerry Magione's A Passion for Sicilians.

In a society plagued by a general lack of trust and honesty, Danilo Dolci's greatest gift was the hope he brought to those whose lives he touched. He organized unions, promoted education and, most importantly, taught people to believe in themselves.

Dolci actively fought to assist victims of the 1968 earthquake which destroyed much of the Belice Valley; the funds for relief and reconstruction were siphoned off by greedy administrators, and "Belice" has since become an Italian by-word for political corruption. Some of Dolci's later initiatives were less successful than others, often bordering on the intangible. His center sought to produce evidence against a secret NATO submarine base off the Sicilian coast on the basis that such an installation required Italian approval and control which in this case was apparently granted covertly to the United States Navy.

The older problems, of course, never went away. Eventually, the Mafia was recognized by the Italian government as the criminal phenomenon that it is. Admittedly, it has evolved considerably, being less rustic and more administrative ("white collar") now than it was in the 1950s, but today Italian penal law actually uses the word "Mafia" to describe Sicilian organized crime. The Sicilian economy has improved somewhat; the towns boast paved roads and other modern "amenities," even if unemployment and under-employment remain high. Much of this progress is owed to the lifelong efforts of Danilo Dolci and his dedicated collaborators. The man who in youth studied architecture had become the architect of social change.

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.

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© 2004 Vincenzo Salerno